In which there is an itinerary mutiny.
Starring an orchestra who nap between songs.
We set off ridiculously early to ensure we got onto a bus to Qiaotou – the start point of the two day trek along the top of the Tiger Leaping Gorge. Despite the corridor being heaped with bags and all the seats taken the driver spent a good 30 minutes trawling the suburbs of Shangri –La for further passengers at one point stopping to pick up a ladies bicycle which was strapped to the roof. No domestic animals thank goodness.
It is possible to do the whole walk in one day but we took the usual approach of splitting it into two with the more strenuous 11kms on the first day. From the minute we set off we were pursued by a bunch of men on mules (who regularly neighed their indignity at the pace we were setting) stressing the great and treacherous journey we were attempting and offering rides at ever increasing cost.
The views are sublime almost right from the start and at all the best points there was an entrepreneurial local who had fashioned a gate out of wooden planks and was asking a very reasonable sum to take pictures.
The mules riders finally gave up hope and disappeared at the bottom of the steepest part of the gorge known, for obvious reasons, as the 28 bends – a series of steep zig-zags to the top of the valley.
The gorge has only had its current name since 1995 when a tiger fleeing pursuers (no doubt mule men offering it a ride up valley sides) was spotted jumping across the river at its narrowest point (now easily identified from up on the cliff tops by the adjacent coach park and novelty restaurant thankfully a good 500m below us).
The second day was a much easier 14kms which we rushed through in the morning to stay ahead of the building rain clouds. Came across families mining silver at one point – the rivers are a caramel colour thanks to fine sandy silt that contains slivers of silver which they filter out by washing it through carpet on the sides of the mountain.
As no one had brought their books with them, there was mass grumbling when we reached the end around lunch time, at the prospect of spending and entire afternoon and evening hanging around a guest house and the group decided that we wanted to set off for Lijan immediately. Our guide, Peter, was tasked with sorting all of this out while we sat around drinking tea. Tour guide is going on the list of jobs that I’m glad I will never do.
It was worth it having the extra day in Lijan though (both for our sense of humour and Peter’s tip). If China has a Disneyland equivalent, this would be it. Except it doesn’t really feel like that – its all just very pretty and quaint and photographable. The entire city was reconstructed after a bad earthquake in 1996 so you have to pay a rather curious Y80 ‘Reconstruction Fee’. But that also gets you a ticket into the Black Dragon Pond to the north of the town for Southern China’s most photographed view of a ‘Snow Mountain’ behind the lovely lake of fresh springs that run through the town.
There’s blissfully little to do other than stroll, eat street food and shop along the quaint cobbled streets. In the evenings there’s the now ubiquitous dancing in the squares after dark – this time around a fire and with slightly different steps, different costumes and a dance master who bossed around everyone that was trying to join in.
We also manage to drag ourselves off to a Naxi music show which although it’s not the kind of the thing you would listen to if you had a headache, was utterly fascinating. Some of the music was composed over 1400 years ago. At least a third of the orchestra are over 80 and they nap quite unselfconsciously between numbers. One of the lutes (originally per a Persian design) is the only existing one of its kind as historical musical instruments were destroyed during the cultural revolution and these were only saved because their owners buried them. There’s no conductor and so time is kept by the oldest man on the oldest instrument – a series of mini-cymbal like discs strung on a grid. He sings a single note to start the songs and the drums join in and then the flutes so that the song gradually gains a rather tuneless pace. One of the men did a short piece of opera using facial expressions to tell the story of “The Borrowed Wife”.
More pictures of Tiger Leaping Gorge: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10150306233406058.344411.532581057&type=3&l=29ea034e7d
More pictures of Lijang: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10150310038681058.345056.532581057&type=3&l=8bde274682